Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Kenya in limbo

In a surprise move, Kenya’s judiciary annulled last month’s presidential elections, which the incumbent won. Uncertainty will now prevail until 17 October, and possibly beyond, writes Haitham Nouri


Kenya in limbo
Kenya in limbo

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Life is almost at a standstill in Kenya, waiting for presidential elections to be repeated 17 October between two decades-old fierce rivals, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The Supreme Court in the capital Nairobi cancelled the results of the 8 August presidential race which Kenyatta won by 54.2 per cent to 44.7 per cent for Odinga. It was an unprecedented move that took everyone at home and abroad by surprise, and embarrassed international, African and local election monitors since they almost all agreed the elections were fair.

The court said, “the elections were not held in compliance with the constitution” and President Kenyatta “was not elected and no winner was declared in the correct manner. Thus, the result is null and void.” The ruling required holding elections again within 60 days. Four out of six judges agreed to cancel the results of the elections and the chairman of the court allowed the remaining two judges to state their position.

Many believe the ruling installed confidence in Kenya’s judiciary as an independent power from the government, something the country lacked despite great progress in the development arena that made it the largest economy in East Africa with a six per cent growth rate during Kenyatta’s tenure.

Nonetheless, Kenya suffers high levels of corruption causing citizens to lose confidence in the state and its agencies in general. There are also tribal conflicts at the heart of political and social life since years before independence. These are two reasons that have greatly hindered the country despite efforts in past decades.

Some 400 international and local election monitors, including the EU, the US’s Carter Centre and African Union representative former South African president Thabo Mbeki, had announced the elections were fair and untampered with except for a few minor infractions that would not impact the overall results. They called on Odinga to stop rallying his supporters to protest and accept the results. Odinga, 72, was not going to run again and his disappearance from the political scene, which would dissolve his large coalition, would ease tensions in Kenya.

For two days, there were violent clashes after the elections results were announced 11 August, killing 23 people, including two nine-year-old children. There were concerns that a repeat of the 2007 violence that killed 1,200 people and displaced 600,000 others after similar elections would erupt. The same thing happened after the 2013 election when 300 people were killed.

The International Criminal Court investigated Kenyatta, Vice President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Arap Sang for their involvement in the 2007 violence, but cleared them due to lack of evidence. At the time, there were rumours about witness intimidation and forced disappearance of witnesses by Kenyatta and his allies.

The West wants Kenya to be calm because it is a cornerstone in the battle against the Somali terrorist group Shebab Al-Mujahideen. Neighbouring dictatorships also do not want tensions in their relatively democratic neighbour.

“Neighbouring African countries want calm to give the impression that Kenya’s political condition is stable like theirs, and not in constant upheaval that could be demanded in their own countries,” according to Assem Al-Sawi, a journalist living in Kenya.

Odinga represents a broad coalition of tribes that have been marginalised since independence due to domination of the Kikuyu (the tribe of all Kenyan presidents). The coalition includes his own Luo tribe (the tribe of former US president Barack Obama’s father) and its traditional allies Luhya in the West and Kalinjin in the Rift Valley region in central and southern Kenya, as well as Muslims on the coast.

The cost of violence, the large coalition backing him and regional and international pressure forced Odinga to ask his supporters to stand down and resort to the courts, which he said would be fair to him because he has strong evidence, unlike previous times. Odinga ran for president in 1997, 2007 and 2013 and lost every time, which makes the upcoming elections in October his final run.

Naturally, he and his supporters welcomed the “very historic [ruling] for the people of Kenya and African democracy”. But Kenyatta’s lawyer, Ahmed Nasser Abdullah, said the ruling was “politicised and only issued in Third World countries” and that the election commission “did not commit any violations”, but they will respect the ruling.

But a few days later, Kenyatta stood among his supporters in Nairobi and described the chairman of the court, David Maraga, and his colleagues as “frauds” who “decided to cancel the elections”. He added: “We are watching you very closely, but let’s complete the election first. We are not scared... We have a real problem in this issue and we must address it.”

Kenyatta became a “hung” president unable to exercise his powers of appointing judges or dissolving governments or parliament. He appointed Maraga, 66, as chief justice and asked voters in Maraga’s hometown to elect him because he “appointed their son” in a senior judicial post.

Kenyan press said the surprise ruling was not unusual for Maraga who is religious and an experienced professional. He graduated from Nairobi University in the mid-1970s and practised law until 2003 when he joined the judiciary. In 2012, he became an appellate lawyer and in 2016 became head of the Supreme Court after his predecessor retired. He has always said he is not a product of the government but is independent.

The ruling did not stop at the election results, but also touched the Election Commission. Its chairman said “changes will include members” and called on the prosecutor general to investigate any members who broke the law. However, he himself refused to resign since he is “not accused of any wrongdoing”.

Meanwhile, Odinga demanded the Election Commission be overhauled because “they are responsible” for what happened. “They should be held accountable,” he said. “The court ruling means serious violations were committed during voting.”

Despite what is viewed by some as an historic precedent on the path of African democracy, there could be many repercussions caused by the Supreme Court’s ruling. First, the financial cost of repeating the election. The first time around it cost $480 million and repeating it is likely to cost more. There is also high tension in the capital and major cities, with thousands of people fleeing to their villages to avoid violence that could erupt due to election outcomes.

At the same time, parliamentary and local council elections will also be repeated to fill 1,900 seats in these bodies out of more than 14,000 candidates.

In October, the two men will face off against each other for the third time, as their fathers did in the 1950s and 1960s — independence leader Jomo Kenyatta and first president, and his comrade at the time and Prime Minister Oginga Odinga. Today, it is no longer just a personal matter, but will impact the state, the people and the economy.

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